Excerpt from The Purple Haze

Book One of The Western Lands and All That Really Matters

Copyright © Andrew Einspruch, 2018. All Rights reserved.

Chapter One

The Proposal

 

“Please, please, marry my son,” implored the chipmunk.

Princess Eloise Hydra Gumball III, Future Ruler and Heir to the Western Lands and All That Really Matters, sat on the Listening Throne in the ornate Receiving Room of Castle de Brague and took two precise sips of her haggleberry tea, trying not to let her surprise show.  She straightened, still holding the cup and saucer. “I… I… Truly, Seer Maybelle? Jerome?” 

Seer Maybelle de Chipmunk’s delicate whiskers drooped, and Eloise worried she’d been too harsh. “Yes, Princess,” she said. “Jerome.”

“Goodness.” Eloise sipped again, buying a moment. “I haven’t really thought about marriage much, but if I may say so, I rather thought I’d end up with a prince of some description. You know, someone more in the direction of a human, perhaps? But, please. I’m happy to hear you out.”

The chipmunk clasped her dainty paws in front of her and began an obviously well-rehearsed plea. “My son, Jerome Abernatheen de Chipmunk, is a good boy, as you well know. And believe me, I am aware of his flaws as only a mother can be.” She extended her claws to enumerate. “He’s forgetful. He’s awkward in small groups. He’s awkward in large groups. He’s prone to wafting off into the La La Realms. His dress sense veers unpredictably and inexplicably from one garish color to another. He knows far, far too much about the musical plays of Lyndia Thrind. He has a penchant for babbling about nothing when stressed. Then there’s the whole unfortunate thing with jesters.”

Eloise nodded. Twice. “One cannot characterize that description as unfair, Seer Maybelle.”

“But Princess Eloise, I’ve searched the future with every tool I have, methods common and obscure, profound and profane, some passed down from my grandmothers a hundred generations removed. I have stared into the flame of the Burning Fungus, scanned dregs of haggleberry tea, and listened to the sounds of the Oracle Bellbirds. I’ve drawn the Twigs of Fate from the Bag of Kismet and sought wisdom in the gurgling mud of the Elder’s Swamp. It embarrasses me to tell you, because it took a week to get the stench out of my fur, but I’ve even taken counsel with Gordon the Noisome, whose twitching earlobes have a strangely accurate predictive quality.” 

Gordon the Noisome? Wow. Seer Maybelle was serious about this. Standing close enough to Gordon to see his earlobes twitch was a sacrifice no one should have to make.

“Everywhere I look, Princess, I see that my son’s destiny is to be by your side. I’m, I’m…” Seer Maybelle’s voice slid down to a whisper. “I’m sorry, but I believe you must wed.”

Eloise took another sip of her tea, then set down the cup. The saucer clinked on the marble side table, which matched the marble walls of the Receiving Room. Eloise carefully moved the cup and saucer so they were in the exact middle of the table on a serviette whose edges were equidistant from the table’s. She placed the spoon on the saucer so it lined up with the serviette and the table. She would rather have put it across the top of the cup, but that would be taking it too far, given that Seer Maybelle was with her.

Until three years before, when Court began demanding so much of her time, Jerome had been her best friend. For a decade, they’d been inseparable, whether exploding whifflenut pies in Cookery and Cuisine class (which she enjoyed despite the mess), plotting paint dart campaigns in Weapons and Stratagems (also fun despite potential mess), ridiculing each other’s poetry in Arts and Elocution, or creating the most elaborate contraptions in Engineering and Constructions. Inseparable, until court life had done the inevitable—separated them.

Eloise understood Jerome like few did. He was a klutz. A clever klutz. A verbose klutz. A well-read, musically literate, historically curious klutz. But definitely a klutz. She loved him, klutziness and all, but like a brother and nothing else. Even ignoring matters of species, marrying him was out of the question. That’s just not what she felt for him.

The problem was Seer Maybelle de Chipmunk. 

Seer de Chipmunk was the Western Lands’ visionary. There was never, ever any escaping what the matronly chipmunk foretold. But if Eloise had learned anything in Oracles and Insights (other than that Jerome showed not the slightest hint of divinatory talent, despite his family line), it was that there was always another interpretation, another angle. 

Seer Maybelle shifted from foot to foot. It was difficult for her to stand like this for so long, but pride and Protocol demanded it. With a quiet rasp, she cleared her throat, preparing to sell, somehow, what was ridiculously unsellable. Her son, short, nervous, and—there was no escaping it—a chipmunk, was completely unsuited to the willowy, athletic, 16-year-old, dark-haired and darker-eyed human. Seer Maybelle opened her mouth, but Eloise held up a finger and stopped her.

“I have an idea.”

“Yes, Princess Eloise?”

“I shall name Jerome Abernatheen de Chipmunk my champion.”

Seer Maybelle stood gape-mouthed, then closed her eyes and scanned the Unseen. When she opened them again, she graced Princess Eloise with a radiant chipmunk smile. She nodded, amazed that such insight could come, once again, from someone so young.

Mrs de Chipmunk left the Receiving Room lighter of heart than she’d felt in weeks.

Eloise draped the Attention Cape over the back of the Listening Throne and wondered how in the name of Çalaht she would ever convince her parents to allow her decision.

Chapter 2

Not a Mushroom

 

“You want me to be your mushroom?” 

Jerome stood in his best Court suit, ridiculous green and blue pantaloons with a shirt that garishly mirrored the pattern of the pants. His tail fiddled with his ruffled collar.

“No, not champignon. Champion.” Princess Eloise sat on the Speaking Throne in the warm brightness of the Declaiming Room.

“Because it sounded like you wanted me to be your mushroom.”

“I most clearly said ‘champion.’ I’m talking about naming you my champion. It has nothing to do with mushrooms, and you know it.” The wordplay was an old joke between them, and they’d thought it was funny when they were five. That he was trying to use it now showed how unhappy he was with what was coming.

“It sounded a lot like…”

“Jerome.” 

There it was. The Tone. He always thought of it as “the Tone,” ever since he first heard it when they were standing outside the headmistress’ door, about to be punished for rappelling upside-down on the Skills Course instead of polishing practice blades in the vault at the Bureau of Bladed Weapons. Jerome had tried to convince Eloise to bolt with him and avoid the upbraiding they were about to get. But she’d used the Tone, telling him to stay and face it. 

And so he had. Jerome was no match for the Tone.

Eloise stood up, stretching to her full height. “I shall ask it again. Jerome Abernatheen de Chipmunk. Would it be acceptable to you if I should name you my champion tomorrow at Court?”

He’d known the request was coming. Well, it was a “request” in format, but it wasn’t like he could say, “Thanks, awfully, but no thanks. I’d be rubbish at that.” His mother had warned him of how Princess Eloise interpreted her prognostication. His obvious, flagrant, and wholehearted unsuitability seemed not to matter.

“Ellipsoid, I—”

“In the Declaiming Room, it is best you not use nicknames. You should refer to me formally.”

With that, Jerome was sunk. When she went all formal, there was no changing her mind.

“Please pardon my familiarity, Princess Eloise. Can we please cover what you’d expect of me, should I have the honor to serve as your champion?”

“Come on, Jerome. It hasn’t been that long since we covered this in Protocols and Procedures.”

“But, Princess Eloise, champions are always massive blokes or buff gals with…” He mimed a huge, bulging bicep. “They’re highly trained warriors. At best, I am a highly trained worrier. Champions have a talent for weapons and tactics. You are more likely to save my bushy tail than the other way around.”

Eloise crooked a finger. “Please follow me, Jerome Abernatheen de Chipmunk.” She sailed toward the open doorway, careful to avoid stepping on any tile cracks.

Keeping an appropriate distance behind her (which felt strange, since for so many years he’d ridden on her shoulder), Jerome followed her out of the Declaiming Room, through the Hall of Authority and out across the Culpability Courtyard, once used for floggings, but now devoted to hockey sacking games. When they went left at the Arched Arch, he knew exactly where she was headed—the Salon des Champions (which they’d always called the Mush Room). 

It was cooler in there than he remembered. And unusually empty. Adorning its walls were hundreds of paired paintings. Each depicted a champion, the Western Lands’ bravest of the brave, next to the royal they served. There were generations worth, heading back to Townshend Bellicose Shinglehefter, the first champion, and Agnes Delion Frostbite Gumball, the first monarch of the Western Lands and All That Really Matters to take the Gumball name.

 

Oh, nuts,” Jerome thought. He’d have to get a portrait made. He hated how he looked on canvas.

As they walked, Eloise pointed to images of several champions who strayed from the predominant pattern of muscle and weaponry. Some were lithe, others bookish. More than a few were non-human (mainly tigers and horses).

Eloise stopped in front of a seemingly random frame. “Being champion is about character as much as strength. Ability, as much as agility. Take Shauna Haliburton Splinter here. She lost an eye and a kidney in a freak kumquat harvesting accident, but served Queen Joan Mendacity Penultimate Gumball for a dozen years.”

They moved along the wall. “Or Gitride de Loamy. Notice anything about his legs?”

“They’re missing.”

“Technically, I think they’re strapped behind him, being boneless. But yes. Not much happening in the leg department. Yet he saved Queen Yvonne Octave Barbell Gumball IV’s life over and over during his two months of service, relying solely on his skill in hand-to-hand combat.”

They walked past another three dozen perfect specimens of championhood, then stopped again. “Or how about Melveeta the Elusive here?” This painting was a landscape, not a portrait like the others. Jerome shrugged, and Eloise pointed to a faint human-shaped shadow emerging from the darkness behind a tree. “Melveeta served her sister, my several-times-great-great-grandmother, Queen Gwendolyn the Irritable. She held the role for decades, and one rarely saw her. Melveeta was said to have a strong magic for insulating herself against danger. We’re not even 100 percent sure what she looked like, or what became of her. But several-times-great-great-grandmother Gwendolyn’s diary notes are full of praise for her champion’s efficiency, cunning, strategy, and loyalty.” Eloise pointed to a light source in the foreground that seemed to come from outside the frame. “This brightness represents the queen, somehow. You’d think if Gwendolyn was so irritable, they’d have portrayed her with a darkness.”

“The portraits are painted while the royal is alive,” said Jerome. “Perhaps the artist did not think that approach conducive to longevity.”

“Hmmm. She was a tough one, for sure.” They both turned to the portrait of Gwendolyn Cowpatch Excelsior Gumball. There was little family resemblance to Eloise, except maybe in the eyes. Gwendolyn was squat and spreading, swathed in royal blues and weighed down by finery. She sat on the throne that was now in the Receiving Room, an unnamed greyhound to her left, and an unnamed manx to her right. On her lap was a glowing green stone or jewel, which was supposed to be the long-lost, and almost certainly fictional, Star of Whatever.

Standing side-by-side, Eloise and Jerome stared at the painting, drawn into Gwendolyn’s world.

“Back When,” Jerome murmured.

“Yes. She reigned at the end of Back When.”

“I often wonder what it was like.”

“Back when there was strong magic? Me too. I wonder if I would have had it.”

“Who knows? Not everyone did.”

“No, they didn’t.” Eloise took a step closer, and looked at the light part of the painting. “Do you think magic was hard to use Back When?”

“Maybe. But it was common enough, so maybe not.”

“I wonder how having it everywhere affected the way people lived. Day-to-day, I mean. We read about it in Histories and Hearsay, but that’s just words. After so many years, what Back When was really like is just gone.”

“We still have weak magic around. My mother’s prognostications. Your throwing.”

Eloise shrugged. “It seems so pale in comparison. A yawn to what used to be a roar.”

“Oh, very poetic.” Jerome turned toward her. He stood on his two back legs, straightened, and cleared his throat. “Princess Eloise—”

“We’re out of the Declaiming Room, Jerrific. You can relax.”

Jerome remained upright and formal. “Princess Eloise, if I may speak plainly…”

“No, Jerome. I don’t think so,” said the princess. “Look. You will accompany me on official business. You will stand during formal occasions as my protector. You’ll speak for me if I am insulted. You’ll give advice. You shouldn’t have to fight or anything, because almost certainly Guard Lorch Lacksneck will be around.” She reached out and gave him a gentle squeeze on the shoulder. “You’ll do what you’re good at: think and talk. Preferably, but not inevitably, in that order.”

“But, El—”

“Please, Jerome. Your mother saw it. And I’m asking you, because you are my friend and I can’t think of anyone I’d rather have.”

Jerome felt the flush in his cheeks. “Of course, Princess Eloise. When you put it that way, it would be an honor to serve. I most humbly accept.” He bowed formally, with just enough paw waggling for her to know there was an irony to it. “Just don’t call me your mushroom.”

Chapter 3

More Spangly Bits

 

Princess Johanna Umgotteswillen Gumball, Eloise’s twin sister, younger by 17 minutes, humphed at her reflection. “More spangly bits.” She turned to Nesther de Duck, her handmaid. “I think this dress needs more spangly bits.”

“Yes, Princess,” said Nesther. “If I may say so, perhaps the dress could stay as it is, but we accessorize with the gold brooch your father gave you. The one with the two hummingbirds. Or maybe the silver toad ear cuff that your uncle gave you.”

Johanna pulled taut the front of her dress to examine her neck. You could barely see any scarring from the Thorning Ceremony three years before. “Let’s try the brooch. I’ll save the ear cuff for Uncle Doncaster’s visit at the end of the week.”

“Yes, Princess. Do we know yet why he’s coming?”

“No. Two is being somewhat obtuse about it.”

Nesther pursed her bill as far as it would go, which was not far, and said, “Yes, Princess.” She did not like it when Johanna referred to the monarch that way. “The queen” was her preference, and “my mother” was fine. But anything else struck her as a trifle unseemly, and “Two” skated far too close to disrespect.

The duck waddled over to the jewelry box, pecked open the lock, and fished the brooch from the tangle of necklaces, bangles, and gilded finery within. Tidiness in her chamber had never been Johanna’s strong suit. She seemed to save it all for her garden. The girl could grow a crocus to make poets weep.

Nesther de Duck hailed from a line of mallards who’d served at Court for more years than she had feathers. She had been assigned to Johanna when the princess turned 14 and had gone through the Thorning Ceremony with her sister. Nesther had been the one to remove the ceremonial thorns from the young maiden’s neck, and to rub in the Wisdom Salve. She often wondered if perhaps she had not used enough Wisdom Salve that day. Maybe a smidge more might have prevented some of the bitterness that became so pronounced as Johanna’s unhappiness took root.

Nesther truly loved the willful, clever teen. Loved her despite herself. Loved her through the tantrums and raging, the petty needling and grand jealousies. 

There was no grander jealousy than the one Johanna harbored toward Eloise. Being second born was rarely easy, and was even less so when the second born happened to be a twin. Usually there was a gap of a year or two at least, to help ease the genuine unfairnesses that Protocol bestowed on the first born. Some second borns dealt with it by becoming confidants. Some were even named champions. But supporting her sister as confidant or champion would never be Johanna’s way. The twins had not been close for years. Come to think of it, not since the Thorning Ceremony, when Eloise was presented as Future Ruler and Heir to the Western Lands and All That Really Matters, and Johanna had been presented as “her sister”—not even “second born.” 

The tears that night had not just been from the thorns.

Nesther brought the brooch to Johanna, who took it with a distracted nod (as close to a “thank you” as the duck ever received), pinned it to her dress, and considered its effect in the mirror. “Not quite right.”

“Scarf?”

“Good idea.”

“Perhaps the turquoise one with the lichen and conch pattern?”

“Let’s try it.”

It would have been faster for Nesther to fly to the wardrobe, but that would have breached Protocol. Johanna’s tolerance for Protocol breaches was notoriously low. She armed and armored herself with Protocol, clasping to her breast the very source of everything Johanna felt was wrong in her life. Princess Johanna knew the Livre de Protocol and the dozen volumes of Protocol Commentaries better than anyone. She wielded this knowledge like a weapon—sometimes like a mace, sometimes like a razordisc, sometimes like a tiny vial of tinctured haggleberry—depending on which approach provided her the most benefit.

So Nesther walked across the room, slipped the scarf into a linen bag, and dragged it back, being careful not to snag it on anything. Johanna spent the time running a thick porcupine-needle comb through her tangle of hair. The comb hurt, but it was the only thing that had any chance of making it through Johanna’s tight curls, one of the few obvious traits she shared with her twin.

Another nod, and Johanna reached for the bag. She wrapped the scarf around her shoulders, pinned it with the brooch, and considered her reflection again. The brooch caught the light, adding the flair Johanna had sought. Nesther saw a frown settle on Johanna’s face. So It was a “yes” then.

“That should be all until after dinner, Nesther.”

“Yes, Princess. Please convey my best to the queen and king.”

“Of course,” said Johanna. 

But Nesther de Duck knew she wouldn’t. That was one part of Protocol Johanna always seemed to let slip.

Chapter 4

The Stone and the Stoner

 

To say that Queen Eloise Hydra Gumball II and her husband King Chafed were beloved in the Western Lands and All That Really Matters was a bit like saying that olives were beloved by Eastern Landers. It was true, but it did not tell the whole, fanatical story. 

Eastern Landers prided themselves on having more olive species than any other land, more ways to turn raw olives into something you could actually eat, and more dishes where olives took the main stage than any other foodstuff that grew on that side of the Adequate Wall of the Realms. Eastern Landers once used olives as currency, and they still crowned their royalty with olive laurels, traded olive saplings on the black market, and were more likely to talk about the olive harvest than about a hockey sacking championship. Prayers about olives featured prominently at Çalahtic devotional houses each week.

Eastie kids learned to count by putting pitted olives onto their fingertips, then eating them off one at a time. Decorated jars of olives were presented to women who’d given birth, children who came of age, newlyweds and retirees. When Eastern Landers died, their bodies were washed in olive brine then buried with a mouth full of olives, thus ensuring their safe passage to the afterworld, where they might stand with Çalaht, who, through the olives, would recognize where they were from and consider their soul’s fates favorably. Eastern Lander beauties, both male and female, prized being olive-skinned. The people of the Eastern Lands were so olive-obsessed that they didn’t even care that their olive compulsions made them the butt of jokes cracked by people in the three-and-a-half realms. They wore their oliveness with blind pride.

And yet, Western Landers loved Queen Eloise Hydra Gumball II and King Chafed even more than that, if perhaps with a tad more dignity. Were it not against Protocol, banners proclaiming the near-saintliness of the royal couple would have flown from every flagpole, washing line, parapet, and awning. Were it not also against Protocol and royal edict, every female child born would be named “Eloise” and every boy “Chafed.” (Only the Queen could pass on her name, as she had done with her daughter, and it was a royal privilege she enforced with her full royal powers.) Praise, both to their faces and behind their backs, flowed like the River Thurmond during the wet season. People made pilgrimages to Castle de Brague almost as frequently as they made them to the Sclerotic Wold in The South, the birthplace of Çalaht.

The thing was, such adulation was substantially earned. When Queen Eloise II (affectionately called “Two”) ascended the throne, crisis ruled the Western Lands and All That Really Matters. The Queen’s mother—Eloise Hydra Gumball I (known with distaste as “One”)—had chosen disastrously when it came time to pick a mate, selecting as king a man of stunning beauty, but one who was so venal, closed-minded, and petty that polite society and less-polite Court never spoke of him by name, simply referring to him as “One’s Grand Mistake.” And yet, One loved him, at least for a while, even if he was incapable of reciprocating. With time, their discord became whispered common knowledge, then overt public enmity. One’s stewardship of the realm dwindled, collateral damage to her marital acrimony. Matters of state simply went all driverless-carriage, decisions left unmade as One and One’s Grand Mistake spent their time clawing out each other’s hearts, both in private and, especially, in public.

Two was the only brightness that sparked from the calamitous union. However, no one knew how bright her light was until she stood in the Declaiming Room wearing the crown as Queen (much too young, most had said). Decisions began to be made, and competently. Two unexpectedly picked out Chafed Motley de Chëëëkflïïïnt from a roomful of suitors, despite his being from the Half Kingdom north of the Adequate Wall (it had been centuries since a Gumball had wed someone from there). She saw in him what others had missed—a hand worth holding and a mind worth listening to. Chafed happily took on the Queen’s name, becoming King Chafed Motley Gumball née de Chëëëkflïïïnt, and helped Two restore surety to the land.

So yes, they were beloved.

Mostly.

Unsurprisingly, there were some in the queendom who did not hold the queen and king in such high regard.

Which was why dinnertime was always so awkward.

One of the not-so-enthusiastic was Princess Johanna. On a good day, they were Mother and Father. On a not-so-good day, she referred to them as Two and Two-minus, or simply Them (collectively) or One of Them (individually).

The family sat in the private Salon de Gustation, dressed formally, as always, for dinner. As servers offered the opening course (black soybean and hoisin lettuce wraps), it soon became clear that this particular mealtime would head toward a “Them” day. It happened when the Queen said, “The Ceremonies of the Stone of the Ancestors will be this weekend.”

Eloise froze, her face blank, her mind racing at the implications.

“Boy, these look scrummy,” said King Chafed. He stuffed a lettuce wrap in his mouth, chewed briefly, and swallowed. “Come on, everyone. Dig in.” 

Johanna set down her fork before it touched any food and glared at her mother. “No.”

Queen Eloise let that one slide. “It’s why your Uncle Doncaster is visiting. I’d have thought you would have worked that out yourself, given we’re so close to your seventeenth birthdays.”

“I can’t,” said Eloise, stricken. “I can’t. Mother, don’t. Please.”

“And why not?” The queen dipped her lettuce wrap into a shallow bowl of tamari and ate it.

“It’s unsanitary,” said Eloise.

“It’s loathsome,” added Johanna. “And degrading.”

“I can’t say I disagree.” Queen Eloise skewered another lettuce wrap from her plate. “But it is in the Livre de Protocol, plain as day. And the commonness of it appeals to the people. I’ve decided we may as well get it over with. Your father agrees, don’t you dear?”

Chafed, mouth full again, coughed like he’d choked, and gave an “of-course-dear” nod.

Johanna glowered. “No.”

Eloise felt fear coagulating in her guts. “Mother, no. Please, you… You know me. I can’t.”

There was no question the Ceremonies of the Stone of the Ancestors were utterly disgusting from start to finish. The ceremonies had two parts: the Placing of the Stone and the Receiving of the Stone. These were two ends of a symbolic ritual that centered on the Stone of the Ancestors, a polished lapis lazuli the size of a black muscat grape. The Stone of the Ancestors had been passed down through centuries, and could be reliably traced back dozens of generations to Agnes Delion Frostbite Gumball, who created the Ceremonies of the Stone of the Ancestors.

The Placing of the Stone was simple enough. A designated stoner put the Stone of the Ancestors into the mouth of the heir. There it had to stay for three hours. Anyone—literally anyone, from the lowliest ragpicker or wool disperser to the highest noble—was allowed to ask the heir to show them the stone. The heir had to poke out his or her tongue and show it. If the stone happened to fall, it was considered a good omen for the asker. They had permission to pick it up off the ground, kiss it for luck, and hand it back to the stoner, who held it up for all to see, kissed it as well, then put it back in the heir’s mouth. At that point, three minutes were added to the tabulated time, and the process was repeated. Ask, show, maybe drop—if so, pick up, kiss, show, kiss, replace. Inevitably, both the heir and the stoner caught some sort of usually non-fatal illness, and if the heir had a bad run or a particularly maladroit tongue, the process could take most of a day. 

As repugnant as that all was, it was not the worst part. 

Once the three hours plus the aggregated additional time had passed, the stoner rang the Gong of the Stone of the Ancestors. That meant it was time for everyone (save the heir) to sing the “Hymn of the Ceremonies of the Stone of the Ancestors.” Then the heir protruded her tongue one last time to show that the Stone of the Ancestors was still there, and then swallowed it.

At this point, there were usually great cheers from the throng gathered in the Hall of Bald Opulence, as there wasn’t much longer to go.

The next part of the ceremony was pretty dull—a recitation of names from the Gumball genealogy. Drinks were served, but no snacks. The Stone of the Ancestors sat inside the heir until exactly one hour had passed. At that point, the Gong of the Stone of the Ancestors was rung again, and it was time for the Receiving of the Stone. The stoner ceremoniously offered the heir a flagon, containing an unpleasant combination of emetic herbs, mainly mustard and puke weed, with four teaspoons of salt to ensure the heir’s stomach got the message. Inevitably, it did—sometimes as an energetic projection, sometimes as a subdued retch. Either way, the Stone of the Ancestors was brought forth, and it was up to the stoner to directly confirm its reappearance, fishing it out, cleaning it, kissing it one last time, giving it to the heir for one last kiss, and then—at last—holding it aloft and proclaiming the successful Receiving of the Stone. This triggered another round of cheers, followed by a lavish feast, at which the heir sat in the place of honor, even if she did not much feel like eating.

The Ceremonies of the Stone of the Ancestors were wildly popular—partly because of their simplicity, partly because it meant free food (not just at Court, but for everyone in the queendom), partly because it was a fairly rare ritual, which made it novel, and partly because the very baseness of the process helped everyone involved remember that the royals were just people too. The ceremonies were also ripe with symbolism. The Stone of the Ancestors represented a connection to the land and to the lineage. It was a symbol of the heir’s willingness to swallow hard problems, endure discomfort for the greater good of the people, and be willing, when called upon, to output tangible results. 

But yes, the whole thing was repulsive. Which was why Eloise was heading toward panic, and Johanna was balking. Eloise could almost ignore the thought that so many ancestors before her—including her mother—had had this thing inside them. Almost. What really riled her innards was the very thought of all that dirt getting stuck to the stone from being dropped over and over, and all that slobber from all those people, and who knew if they’d washed recently or not, or if they ever brushed their teeth, and she’d have the stone in her mouth and would have to hold it there, and there’d be all that contact with untold manner of agues. The more her mind dove into the details, the more overwhelmed she felt.

The sound of arguing cut through her thoughts.

“I can promise you I will never be the stoner,” said Johanna, voice rising.

“I can promise you that you undoubtedly will be the stoner,” replied her mother, less calm now. “This is Protocol that won’t be skirted—and certainly not by you.”

Eloise looked at her sister, and not for the first time thought, “Why can’t you just deal with it?” At least Johanna didn’t have to swallow the thing. And it’s not like this was some massive surprise. The two had talked about it when they’d first come across it in Protocols and Procedures more than a decade earlier. They’d thought it a sick joke, or an antiquated anachronism. But then, they had thought the same of the Thorning Ceremony.

“Does this truly warrant such complaint?” Chafed gestured with his fork at Johanna. “It’s not that big an ask. Just be the stoner and be done with it.”

“Oh? It’s not a big ask? You’re not the one armed with a vomit bucket and a spoon looking for a stupid rock,” said Johanna. “If I wasn’t her beloved twin, ‘her sister,’ the joy of being the stoner would fall to someone who’d think it an honor.”

“True,” said the Queen. “But as you’re second born and a twin, the honor absolutely goes to you.”

“Please, Mother,” said Eloise. “Don’t make her do it if she doesn’t want to.”

Johanna turned on her. “Don’t you want me to be part of the ceremony? Is this another way I’m not good enough for you?”

The sudden change of direction took Eloise by surprise. “Oh, for the love of Çalaht, you know that’s not what I meant.”

“Sounds like it. Sounds like you don’t think I’m up to the task of poking around in your digestive expulsions.”

The queen set down her fork and stood. Everyone stopped what they were doing and stood as well. 

The room clattered into silence. 

Chapter 5

Chapter 137 Sub-Section (f) 3

 

Slowly, Queen Eloise walked around the table, pulling a folded fan from a pocket and rapping it on her open left palm once for every step. She stopped behind her daughters’ chairs. They had to turn their backs to the table so they could face her. The queen stood a quarter length taller than the twins, but seemed to loom much taller. 

“Kneel,” she commanded, her voice fiercer for being a whisper.

Both girls dropped to their knees, eyes locked on their mother’s feet.

The queen placed the folded fan under Eloise’s chin, lifting her face upward. She locked eyes on her daughter. “Princess Eloise, I have more than a passing familiarity with your…” She paused, looking for the right word. “Your habits.” Eloise felt the burn of blood rushing to her cheeks. This was not a topic they normally addressed so directly. “You are the heir, and the Ceremonies of the Stone of the Ancestors are part of that. You will simply adjust yourself accordingly. Understood?”

“I…” started Eloise, but at a small, firm gesture from the queen, the protest died in her throat. She lowered her eyes. “Understood.”

The queen shifted her attention to her other daughter. “Princess Johanna, the matter of the stoner is made exquisitely clear in chapter 137 sub-section (f) 3 of the Livre de Protocol. So are the consequences of a second born declining that particular duty. Would you care to enlighten us on that part of the text?”

“Fine,” muttered Johanna. “I’ll do it.”

“Thank you, Princess Johanna, but I still need to make sure you understand the full import of that part of the Protocol. So, once again, please relate the consequences of declining to be the stoner. Do not make me ask a third time.”

“Mother—” started Johanna.

“Mother? The time for ‘mother’ passed quite a while ago.”

Eloise flinched, even though the comment was not directed at her. “My queen, please don’t.” Eloise did not meet the queen’s gaze. “Please don’t force her.”

“Enough from you,” the queen snapped. “Your sister brings this on herself. Go ahead, Princess Johanna. I’m waiting. Here, I’ll give you the start of the passage, although I’m sure I don’t need to. ‘The second born is given…’”

Johanna straightened her back and dared to look directly at her mother. “Chapter 137 sub-section (f) 3 reads, ‘The second born is given a choice of 14 days in the stocks on the public square or five days in the Exposure Pit.’ That’s the most relevant bit.”

“Correct. And?”

Color drained from Johanna’s face, but her voice held steady. “I won’t quote because the wording is obtuse and flowery, but Protocol calls for the loss of the second born’s choice of finger. I’ll mention that the Commentaries hold this to be more in the nature of a threat than actual, enacted punishment. There’s not been a finger-severing punishment like that for 186 years.”

“And what happened 186 years ago?” 

Johanna stayed silent, refusing to answer.

“Princess Eloise? Do you know?” asked the queen.

Eloise swallowed. “A second born refused to be the stoner.”

“Obviously. That’s what we’re talking about. Be specific. Do any of the Protocol commentaries give shading or nuance to that part of the text?”

“I said I would do it.” Johanna had trouble keeping the snarl from her voice. “I said I would be the stoner.”

“I asked a question. Is there nuance provided by the commentaries? Either of you should feel free to answer.”

“There is a single comment,” answered Johanna. “It comes from Lyndal Halfmast Oberon Gumball.”

“Princess Eloise, who was that?”

“Lyndal Halfmast Oberon Gumball was the second born, who 186 years ago spent five days in the Exposure Pit and chose, from among her fingers, to have her left pinky severed.”

“Princess Johanna, what was her sole comment?”

“She said, and I quote, ‘This dost suck. But such is Protocol.’”

“Apt. ‘Such is Protocol.’”

“I said I’d bloody do it.”

“Don’t speak that way. Not to me, not to anyone. Besides, it’s not up to me. It is up to your sister.” The queen pointed at the floor with her fan.

That it was up to Eloise was only true as a formality. Johanna blanched at being forced to go the next step. She swiveled on her bent knees so she faced Eloise, then touched her head to the flagstones. She recited words precisely as Protocol dictated, ignoring the bile rising to her mouth. “Princess Eloise Hydra Gumball III, Future Ruler and Heir to the Western Lands and All That Really Matters, I, Johanna Umgotteswillen Gumball, second born, would be honored to serve as your stoner at the coming Ceremonies of the Stone of the Ancestors, if it would please you to have me.”

Eloise hated having to play her part in this. Her sister’s forced compliance hardly made her want to give the answer she knew she must. But Eloise knew better than to deviate from the scripted reply. “Of course, Princess Johanna Umgotteswillen Gumball. It would be an honor to have you by my side and helping me at the Ceremonies of the Stone of the Ancestors.”

“Good,” said the queen. “Now we’re all on the same scroll.” With that she pocketed her fan, strode back to her chair, and sat. Everyone else stood still for an incredibly long three minutes, watching as she ate another lettuce roll. Finally, she flicked her hand irritably in permission. 

Eloise and Chafed sat. The servants thawed from a frieze of fear and began serving the main course—a bulgar salad flavored with edamame and quince. Johanna, however, remained standing. “With the Queen’s permission, I would like to be excused from the meal.”

For a few moments, it was as if the queen had not heard. But then she turned off the ice and flashed her daughter a smile like everything was fine. “Stay, Johanna. Chef has made her best chilled chili and double-chocolate torte for dessert.”

“Please, my queen, I am not feeling well.”

“Sit. Stay.”

Johanna took her seat and ate slowly, precisely, minimally, never taking her eyes off her plate. She didn’t say another word.

I hope you enjoyed this excerpt from The Purple Haze. Click here to get your copy.